Climbing Denali

May 16 – May 27, 2016  “Climb Safe. Keep Denali Clean.” NPS Ranger

  • How tall is Denali? 20,310 feet
  • Did we summit? No
  • Are you dissapointed? Yes and no
  • Are you going back? Only if we can climb alpine style (less stuff to move faster)
  • How high did we get? Just above Camp 3 ~ 12,300 feet
  • How did it go?

We flew off of Denali on May 27th and up to that point, it had been a very tough weather year. A fair number of people were pinned down in their tents by bad weather at camp 4 for nine + days, and many ran out of food. Some were trapped at camp 4 with frostbite so bad, they could not get themselves down, and the weather wasn’t allowing for prompt rescues. During our almost two weeks on the mountain it snowed all but two days; not uncommon for this mountain. But this meant that due to the incessant snow and wind, even if someone was climbing a short distance in front of us, we still had to break trail as the snow drifted very quickly.

13310459_10209713304533127_3853072948880239765_nThis picture best sums up our experience. In order to make any progress we were forced to climb in bad weather. We climbed up into a storm and cached (buried) gear higher up to be retrieved later, a way to reduce the overall load while ascending. We strapped the empty sleds to our packs on the way down because it is much easier than dragging it while skiing. The storm grew fierce. After buring our supplies and gear, we had to ski down the glacier in a white out. Skiing roped together when you can’t tell if the slope is flat, steep, powder or ice due to the white out conditions is tough and taxing, both physically and mentally. Add in the fact that there are crevasses, our eyewear was icing up and had to be scraped clear every couple of minutes, and the fact that we had been on the move for over six hours you start to get the picture.

I took this photo at 9pm (yes it really is that light out, as it never really gets dark in Summer) when the clouds parted briefly allowing us to see our tent below. Knowing we would be okay I relaxed enough to take this shot. Liz’s smile shows the relief that we will not be forced to dig a snow cave as an emergency shelter.

The turning point came a few days later. In an effort to take advantage of a forecasted upcoming weather window, a window we needed to get around a tricky section of the climb, we decided to move to camp 3, effectively climbing past camp two. If we did not take this chance, the forecasted weather would put any opportunity of a summit in jeopardy. So with each of us carrying more than 100 pounds of gear and supplies, we headed up towards our intended camp–4 miles and 3,400 feet above us. For the first two hours we roasted as the sun was out, the glacier is a very effective reflecting oven. Slowly the weather changed and started to fall apart. By the time we got to our supply cache, at camp 2, it was snowing and blowing. We dug up the supplies and gear that we would need higher up, added it to our already heavy loads and headed up to camp 3. The option of camping here in bad weather was highly discouraged by the rangers during our pre climb briefing, as it is very exposed. Our pace slowed to a crawl and the weather worsened. We were on terrain that offered no options to stop and put the tent up, we had to make it to the next camp.

Nine hours after setting off, we reached camp 3 at 6pm. We then spent the next two hours in the storm hacking out a platform for our tent, time that would prove to take a heavy toll on our feet. As the temperature dropped below zero, we dragged ourselves into the tent. We had enough energy left to make some hot water for what turned out to be 300 calories of soup a piece. The physical toll was mounting. I injured my left hand on the first day off the climb and it remained swollen for the entire trip. Between the two of us you can add 1 frost-bitten toe, 6 toes with frost nip, three blisters, two bruised toes, bruised shins, sun burn, dehydration, stiff backs from hours of digging (often in the middle of the night to keep the tent from getting buried by snow), and just a lack of energy from not eating enough. Not a pretty picture.

On our rest day at camp 3, the weather started out at 20 below zero F. But it rapidly warmed and cleared so we geared up and climbed halfway to the next camp not wanting to waste the first time in nearly a week that we could see what was around us. The views were stunning and the climbing fun. But it also exposed, how the previous days 11 hour effort in poor weather, had beaten us down. With the forecast showing more of the same (weather windows measured in hours, not days) we decided to call ‘no joy’ on our attempt. We were working with a Denver area meteorologist, who is also a climber. He sent us, via text message to our Delorme inReach, daily detailed forecasts for our position on the mountain. We both struggled with the decision, but the numbness in our feet was a constant reminder of what was at stake.

Even our retreat was delayed due to storms, and hauling all that gear and supplies down can prove to be just as challenging as taking it up. It was an amazing experience. We did have some good times, saw some great views and met some really amazing people that we will keep in touch with. But wow…..there really is nothing like having to draw on all your experience, strength, guts, creativity and drive day after day when even eating two meals a day is an accomplishment.

Denali Photos

Some lessons learned in no particular order:

  • Neither of us were utterly driven to summit Denali, at least not enough to risk losing digits over
  • Expedition style climbing isn’t our forte

A huge amount of supplies are needed to stay for 3-weeks and provide a wide safety margin, but moving that load from campsites to cache sites, depletes your physical resources in a way we had not anticipated.

  • We eat less on the mountain that we do when we are at home
  • The meals we ate were really yummy!
  • We didn’t ever sleep well enough to recharge our batteries
  • Sunscreen works just as well even after being frozen
  • Frozen dish soap kind of sucks
  • Pulling sleds DOWNHILL is completely demoralizing and soul crushing


3 thoughts on “Climbing Denali

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